It seems odd to think of an art museum as a solid multi-genre music venue, but the North Carolina Museum of Art has been nailing it this year with their music bookings. The summer concert series, curated by George Holt, the director of performing arts and film, has been hitting it out of the park with a solid lineup of artists and a run of sold-out shows, including recent performances from Sheryl Crow and Scottish indie-pop icons Belle and Sebastian. Continuing the run of must see events hitting NCMA’s intimate outdoor amphitheater was a show billed as an evening with Merge Records. The showcase featured three bands aligned with influential Durham-based indie music label Merge Records, including Ex Hex, Waxahatchee, and Superchunk.
With weather reports calling for thunderstorms combined with heat and jungle-like high humidity, Saturday evening threatened to be a washout. Luckily as show time approached, the heat and humidity moderated and the storms never materialized, providing an ideal night for music. Leading off the evening’s performances was garage-pop trio Ex Hex. Emerging from Washington DC, and consisting of frontwoman/guitarist Mary Timony, bassist Betsy Wright, and drummer Laura Harris, Ex Hex delivered a short but searing set of relentless indie garage-rock liberally flavored with classic 70’s rock ’n’ roll. They hit the ground running with set opener “Don’t Wanna Lose” from their debut album Rips, released by Merge in 2014, and continued with “You Fell Apart,” “How You Got That Girl,” and “Waterfall” before digging into some new material. With only one full-length under their belt, Ex Hex didn’t have a large song list to pull from and it felt like their set ended just as they were hitting their stride, ultimately proving it’s better to leave them wanting more than to overstay one’s welcome.
Holding down the middle spot of the evening fell to Waxahatchee, the solo music project of Katie Crutchfield, a singer-songwriter from Birmingham Alabama. Crutchfield has been releasing albums under the name Waxahatchee since 2012. The debut Waxahatchee album for Merge Records, Ivy Tripp was released in 2015 and featured Crutchfield’s intelligent lyrics supported by a more polished and fleshed-out sound than her prior efforts. Earlier this year, Waxahatchee performed as a stripped down duo with Katie Crutchfield accompanied only by a bass player, previewing songs from yet to be released new album Out in the Storm. Now with the new album having been released last month, Waxahatchee took the stage as a full band, and started with the atmospheric new song “Recite Remorse” followed by the upbeat “Silver.” The touring band, which included Katie’s twin sister Alison on guitar and vocals, as well as a bass player, drummer, and a third guitar player filled out the sound and provided a rich underpinning to Crutchfield’s, powerful voice and haunting lyrics. The performance focused primarily on new songs and included almost all of Out in the Storm, with only “Fade” not making the setlist. The fuller more guitar-driven songs were greeted with a combination of loud cheers and quiet attention.
Bringing it home and closing out the night was Superchunk, a band who have become synonymous with Merge Records and helped define the Chapel Hill indie music scene of the 1990s. Formed by singer/guitarist and co-founder of Merge Records, Mac McCaughan, Superchunk released their first album in 1990. Since their debut. They have continued to record and perform hook-laden indie rock with punk ferocity over the past 25+ years. On Saturday night McCaughan and Superchunk led off with the aptly titled single “This Summer.” Without a new album to promote, what followed was a full-on sweat soaked romp through the Superchunk catalog with highlights including “Driveway To Driveway,” “Hello Hawk,” “For Tension,” “Water Wings,” “Learned To Surf,” and “Digging for Something.” From the first notes, frontman Mac McCaughan was a blur of motion as he pogoed, leaped, and whirled around the sizeable stage. Driven by the controlled chaos of Jon Wurster’s ferocious drumming, the rest of the band kept pace. Jason Narducy, recruited to fill in for original bass player Laura Balance who no longer tours, prowled stage right like a caged animal as he filled in the low end. While on the opposite side of the stage guitarist Jim Wilbur played with a steady calm and wry smile. As the set progressed, the ecstatic hometown crowd mirrored the bands energy as they cheered, danced, and shouted encouragement between songs. The band closed with their traditional set ending anthem, “Slack Motherfucker,” before returning with a two song encore of “Detroit Has A Skyline” and “Cast Iron.”
Check out photos from the evening with Merge Records below.
Superchunk + Waxahatchee + Ex Hex @ NC Museum of Art – August 12th 2017